Archive for November, 2007

Litlove tagged me for a weird meme, rather appropriately, and I will get to that soon.  In the meantime, my two new books arrived today, a whole day early, so I have to get started on them right away.

S.M. Stirling’s books are about a post-apocalyptic world, where all technology has been rendered inoperable by some mysterious force, which means no computers, no electricity, no guns, no cars, nothing like that.  Civilization is tossed back to the medieval period.

I like post-apocalyptic books, and I know I am not alone in this preference, as evidenced by the popularity of books and movies with a similar theme.  I am working on a theory about such literature, and I plan to post at length as I develop the theory and work out all of the rough spots.  Right now, though, I need to get back to my books.  If you like, you can let me know how you feel about post-apocalyptic stories, and maybe I’ll work your ideas into my theory.

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Annual Mountain Bike Ride

I just received an e-mail from Amazon informing me that I can expect to see the next two Stirling books in my mailbox on November 28th.  That’s four days away, and now I feel like having a temper tantrum.  I won’t, though.  Four days!  What if something happens to Juniper or Mike in those four days and I’m not there to read about it?  Wait, never mind.  Apparently I’m getting fiction and reality confused.  Again.

Anyway.  Last October I went for a mountain bike ride and got terribly annoyed with the shifting on my cheap bike.  I don’t spend the money on my mountain bike the way I do on my road bike.  For one thing, I can’t afford to lavish cash on two high-end bikes.  For another, mountain biking does not really appeal to me except in brief bursts, like when my friend the semi-pro single-speed demon talks about riding the trails.  But last October, I realized that my bike was not shifting well because the chain was going bad, so I went to the bike shop and bought a chain, which stayed on a shelf until today.

After talking to my friend last night at a bike shop party, I thought, Hey, mountain biking might be cool to try out again!  Maybe I could even enter a mountain bike race!  Please note how enthusiastic and exclamation-laden my mountain bike thoughts are; they’re even in italics.  So I spent some time today replacing the chain and debating about whether or not I should also replace the cables.  Though they desperately need replacing, I decided that one repair at a time was good enough for me.  Then I put the bike rack on the car, the bike on the rack and drove to the park.

Mountain biking is fun, but I realized yet again that I have no skills off the paved way.  Little obstacles stop me.  Small bridges over little creeks send me into paroxysms of terror as I imagine bouncing off the narrow path and landing face first in the mud.  I started the ride knowing that I will crash.  Once, when I first got the bike, I was spinning on an easy path, happy in my new-found mountain bike prowess, when I dropped my front wheel into a hole hidden by fallen leaves.  I did a complete somersault in the air over the handlebars and another upon hitting the ground, and I am pretty sure my bike did one or two flips itself.  Every time I ride I see myself doing something equally stupid and painful, the sort of thing they would have used for the “Agony of Defeat” clip on the old “ABC Wide World of Sports” intro.

Today, though, I was much better.  Well, a little better.  I cleared some obstacles with something almost but not quite approaching aplomb, and I only crashed once, when I took a bad line in a rock garden and nailed a big rock with my front wheel while skidding my rear into a hole.  On the steep little climbs I displayed monster power that would have been even more impressive if I had managed to make it to the top without bailing after jamming my chainring on a log.

Mountain biking gives a much more complete workout than road riding.  My arms get as much of a workout as my legs, and I could feel my core muscles–the abs, lower back, and hips–working to keep me moving.  At one point, I did a sort of half bailout when I started to fall but grabbed a small tree and then pulled on it to fling myself down the trail.  Definitely not the sort of thing you do on the road, but I like to think that it looked very cool.

The real question is whether or not this will help my road racing.  It definitely hones the bike-handling skills, which is useful if you’re in a crit with a bunch of guys intent on bumping into each other at high speeds.  It also tightens and tones the scrawny cyclist’s emaciated and pathetic upper body.  We’ll see.  I might just call it a season and leave the bike hanging in the shed until next fall.

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I finished S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire today and now I am in full crisis mode.  My local bookstores within walking distance did not have the second or the third books in the trilogy (which, I discovered, is now technically a tetralogy).  This was very bad news.  Fortunately, there is a Borders about 15 minutes away, so I jumped in my car and braved the Black Friday traffic.

The parking lot at the Borders was a complete mess.  The bookstore shares a lot with Circuit City, so there were a lot of people out searching for holiday bargains, a practice that never fails to send me into a deep depression.  Apparently, shopping on Black Friday makes you stupid, or perhaps confirms your stupidity, because I had to restrain the urge to run over at least fifteen morons who felt that it was perfectly okay to step off the curb in front of a moving car, stop, and have a conversation in the middle of the road!

I found the last parking spot at the back of the lot, feeling superior because I was not holiday gift shopping and I did not worry about walking the extra distance from the back of the lot.  Once in the store, I was faced with hordes of book buyers.  Normally, seeing a lot of people in a bookstore would make me feel good, but this didn’t.  I felt the same way I feel when I take Muttboy for a walk in our park on a sunny warm day and have to elbow past the crowds to get to the secret trails.  Where are all of you people on the cold days?! I want to shout.  I’m out here when it’s 20 degrees and snowing, you miserable, fair-weather, fake-hiker poseurs!

I quickly found the science fiction shelves and ran to the S section.  A long line of Stirling books greeted me.  Volume One of the trilogy.  A dozen copies of Volume Three.  A bunch of other books from other series.  Not one copy of the second book.  Not one.  Here’s a new rule:  If there is a series, a bookstore must stock every volume of the series, not just a few random volumes (And, by the way, don’t suggest reading the third book and coming back to the second.  What are you, some kind of lunatic? Did your parents have any children who lived?).  Failure to do so is punishable by death.  And I don’t want to hear any sniveling about shelf space.  Do you really need to stock three hundred goddamn copies of The Secret?  Please.  And just how much space do you really need to devote to cute kitten calendars?  Now I like cute kittens just fine, but this is a bookstore.  Got it?  Book.  Store.  Sells books.

So after thirty minutes of driving and fending off every moron in central Fairfield county, I arrived back at home without my book.  I was able to order the books online, of course, which is what I should have done three days ago but didn’t, and now I have to wait until next week to start reading the second volume.  This is gonna kill me, I’m sure.

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Snob Trouble

After years of indoctrination in graduate school, I can be a real snob when it comes to literature.  However, after years of indoctrination in graduate school, I can also be a real anti-snob when it comes to literature.  It’s my own brand of schizophrenia.  On the one hand, I extol the virtues of aesthetics, literariness, the canon, while on the other I can devour popular genre fiction as if it were going to be banned tomorrow.

This bifurcated bookishness arrives at an interesting point as I dive into a book a friend let me borrow.  S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire has me hooked.  Utterly.  When I am off doing other things, my mind continues to turn over the implications of the plot, while my heart worries about the characters.

Here is part of my dilemma.  The prose is quite workmanlike; no one is going to give Stirling and award for his literary stylings.  He too frequently falls for a formulaic exposition to get the down and dirty uninteresting stuff out of the way.

The thing about the book, though, is that it is so damned compelling.  The action begins minutes before the Change, when some mysterious Thing happens that causes all of the electrical and explosive things (including ammunition) to quit working.  Modern society is thrown into complete chaos almost immediately as planes fall from the sky and the forces of law and order disintegrate in the strain.

My inner literary snob, which, to be perfectly honest, was never ascendant (to the dismay, I am sure, of my professors), sits silently as I devour this book and note with glee that it is part one of a trilogy, and that trilogy is the sequel of sorts to another trilogy, and those trilogies have one more trilogy (!!) coming after them.  In case you got lost, that makes this book number four out of nine related books.

So, while this is never going to rank as a Great Book, Dies the Fire is most definitely a Great Read.  I am not sure exactly what the difference is, but my inner lit snob assures me there is one.  My inner anti-snob doesn’t care.

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Industrial Fantasy

Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874) is one of those strange Victorian fantasies, where all of the secrets of the universe are waiting to be explained away by positive 19th century rationalism and every problem can be solved by a heroic engineer.  In many ways the story can be a bit maddening for a 21st century reader but at the same time it is remarkably soothing.  The maddening part comes frequently, when Verne’s epitome of reason, heroic engineer Captain Cyrus Harding, makes some grave, not-to-be-denied pronouncement that we all now know to be purest bushwa.  The soothing part comes at the same time, when we long for a universe with rational explanations and immutable laws.

The action of the story begins in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia, where Cyrus Harding, a Union captain; Harding’s ward, Herbert; newsman Gideon Spilett; sailor Pencroft; and Harding’s black servant, Neb (short for Nebuchadnezzar); and Harding’s dog, Top escape from Confederate captivity by stealing an observation balloon.  They have picked a bad moment for lighter-than-air travel since the largest storm ever to hit North America flings them 7,000 miles away into the south Pacific.  Although things look bad for our heroes when the balloon begins to lose altitude very rapidly, they providentially hit the sea within sight of the eponymous mysterious island.

What follows is a typical desert island tale that rather shamelessly rips off every single theme and much of hte plot of Robinson Crusoe.  Remember Crusoe’s fear of being devoured by ravenous beasts?  That’s here.  How about his cave fortress?  That’s here, too, only it’s much, much larger and more grand.  Then there’s Crusoe’s careful husbanding of the few grains of wheat so he can have bread.  Harding and company start with a mere one grain, but Verne wows us with the calculations to show the mathematical progression from one grain to 4,000 bushels.  Crusoe took something like 30 years to establish his domain completely.  Here, the colonists, as Verne insists on calling them, do it all in four.

Harding really is the sort of guy you want with you on a desert island.  Before they really have any other tools, he somehow manages to manufacture nitroglycerin so they can blow some thing up to make their cavern dwelling.  By the time their island idyll collapses, he has managed to make a ship, a substitute for gunpowder, a windmill, a telegraph, a hydraulically operated elevator, glass, and more.  Here, too, the generational schism provides some angst.  For the Victorian reader, Harding’s abilities no doubt look heroic, but to the modern reader, it begins to look rapacious.  Just how much of the island is he going to destroy in the name of industrial efficiency?

While all of this is going on, Verne adds a completely unnecessary deus ex machina that pops up periodically whenever things get really tough.  Because Harding is so completely competent, the introduction of a mysterious benefactor who leaves things like tools and medicine lying around for the colonists to pick up feels superfluous.  Nevertheless, experienced Verne readers wait for Captain Nemo to make his appearance, and he does not disappoint.

The strangest part of the novel is its ending.  After Harding and the other colonists have managed to create in only four years a completely “civilized” and efficient industrial society, Verne does not let them earn their reward.  Instead of letting them return to America and then bring more colonists back to the island, he blows the island up in spectacular fashion. The colonists are saved by yet another deus ex machina, a passing ship that just happens to be in the area.  Despite the power of the huge intellect, despite the industrial know-how, despite the American determination, the colonists end up at the mercy of outside forces.  Verne seems to be reversing himself here:  The industrial fantasy becomes as hollow as the island itself turns out to be and science and engineering in the end do not save the day.

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It really isn’t all that cold out, but the first cold weather rides of the season are always hard.  I know in February, I’ll think back on my rides the past couple of days with warm, fond memories.  Especially warm ones.

So just how cold?  It was about 43 or so yesterday when I left and a couple of degrees colder when I got home.  Today it was the same, with the welcome exception of less wind.  Yesterday the wind was gusty and blustery, sending autumn leaves, sticks, and small animals tumbling hither and yon.  Wherever yon is.

The thing I most hate about cold weather cycling, other than the, you know, cold, is how long it takes to get ready.  In June, I throw on a pair of shorts and a jersey, and then I’m more or less ready to go.  Today, I wore shorts, a long-sleeved base layer, a jersey, tights, armwarmers, and a wind vest.  Two pairs of socks on my feet along with thin shoe covers did keep my toes warm–or at least warm enough to feel them–for about an hour.  After that, my toes disappeared into a tunnel of numbness.

This really is pathetic.  I wonder sometimes what I will do when it really gets cold.  Last year, I went out on a long ride with my friend from the shop when it was only 11 degrees, and I must have been doing some serious layering to stay just warm enough to keep from dying.

What makes this especially hard for me is the thousands of miles I logged when I lived in California.  We thought we knew what cold weather riding was.  We whined when we encountered a little ice on top of Tunnel road in January.  The truth is, I could ride through most winters with nothing more serious than my cool-weather fall riding gear.  When I was in college, I was poor, not to mention cheap, and I made a pair of armwarmers by cutting the toes off a pair of tube socks and rolling those suckers on my arms.  They worked, too, but I doubt they would do me much good here in New England.  They were strictly California style.  And they were stylin’, let me tell you.  I guess I figured that since I was already dressed like an idiot in all that neon lycra (it was the 1980s, after all), armwarmers made out of socks was not really a fatal fashion flaw.

But now I dream of high-tech thermal jackets, fleece-lined gloves, neoprene shoe covers, and special wind-blocking fabrics for my knees.  At times like this, it seems best to hibernate until the leaves return.  But, the races start in March, and I have to be ready to go.

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I made it past the first step in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards: I’m a semi-finalist!  Now it gets evaluated by Publisher’s Weekly and Amazon’s “Top Reviewers,” whoever they may be, before advancing to the next round.  That round, which starts on January 15, allows anyone to read excerpts and the reviews and then review the book themselves.  After that, the top ten finalists are presented to a vote from March 7 until April 7.  One weird thing: if I make it to the next round, I have to grant Penguin exclusivity from January until April. Since I have not had any interest so far, I guess I can live with that.

I’ll let you all know when you can start voting for me.

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So, yeah, I’m probably really late on the bandwagon here, but I just discovered another really great time sucker online and I thought it was pretty cool.  There is a site called Free Rice where you can take a vocabulary quiz.  For every word that you get right, the organization donates 10 grains of rice to the UN to fight worldwide hunger.  At the bottom of the screen, ads flash that apparently pay for the rice.  While ten grains may not seem like very much, enough people are wasting their time doing this that, as I write this, over 1.3 billion grains of rice have been donated.  I’m not sure exactly how much that is, but it sure sounds like a lot.

The vocabulary questions start out easy but get harder as you get more right.  There are 50 levels, and I am a bit annoyed that I have not yet been able to get all the way up to level 50.  My highest so far is level 48, and some of the words are really obscure.  I have guessed at some–but always educated guesses, of course!–and have been able to figure out others, but some have left me stumped.  So far, I have personally donated over 2,000 grains of rice.

See?  A Ph.D. in English is good for something.

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Walking with a Ghost

Every morning Muttboy and I take a walk in a big park about ten minutes away from our house.  There is one spot near the end of our walk where the trail turns to the right and drops down a little hill before running into the boat launching area.  Every day after I make the turn and start down the little hill, Muttboy stops behind me and waits for me to stop and look back at him.  When I do, his eyes light up and he howls at me.  I call him a silly dog and we continue on the walk.  I do not know what this wild howl means, but it must mean something since he does it every day at the same spot.  Maybe he realizes that it is the last turn before we head back to the car, and he wants to walk longer.  Maybe he thinks that is a good spot to play some sort of dog chase game (sometimes I do chase him here).  Maybe he just likes to express his joy at being in the woods.

Right after my dad got sick, I started making plans for what we would do when he recovered.  Since he had never been to New England, of course he would come up and spend some time in Connecticut.  As I walked through the woods last winter I thought about what we would do when he visited.  I knew that he would want to tromp through the fallen yellow leaves with me and Muttboy.

My dad loved dogs.  He claimed to understand them.  In his infrequent phone calls, he would spend many of his precious cell phone minutes telling me about the latest goofy exploits of his dog–how he chased a stick on the beach or took over the bed in the morning.  Walking with my dog today, I can almost see and hear my dad walking along with us.  When Muttboy grabs a huge fallen branch from the forest floor and tears around with it hanging out of his mouth, I can hear my dad laughing.  When he shakes the stick back and forth, I can hear my dad shout along with me, “Kill that stick, you vicious killer dog!”

And then that weird howl.  I have never known a dog to talk as much as Muttboy, and I know that my dad would have been completely taken by his vociferous nature.  After we hit that turn today and Muttboy howled his big, hearty, happy “Arrroooo!” I heard Dad right there laughing, the lines crinkling around his eyes and his head thrown back.  He was wearing his old red wool hunting jacket, his hands thrust into the pockets.  I saw him shake his head as he said, “What a goofy dog!  What a goofy dog!”

He’s been gone seven months.  He never did make it to New England, but now I walk with him almost every day.  It’s my voice that sounds so much like his and my laughter that echoes him.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the ghost.

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More Whining

My writing is gasping.  My teaching is imploding.  My cycling is flatting.  My reading is lacking in adventure.  Essentially, nothing has gone at all well for the last three months.

Deep breath.  I took everyone’s advice and did what I knew needed to be done.  I gave up, perhaps temporarily, on book #2 and started book #3, which I guess means that book #2 is no longer book #2 because book #3 is book #2.  I hate this, but it is probably the right thing to do.  Book #3/2 terrifies me.  I know that I will either finish it or it will kill me in the process.  Never before, not even writing my dissertation, did I ever feel so much anxiety about writing something while simultaneously feeling such a compulsion to write.  So I started the next book today, and I don’t know if it will work, since it is such a deep, close subject and the thought of messing it up nearly paralyzes me.

Teaching.  One student has boundary issues.  Needs a filter.  Tonight she shouted, “No, you’re wrong!” when I was trying to explain a point about how Poe creates his characters’ psychological states.  When I try to stop her long look-at-me answers to my questions, she ignores me and keeps talking, even if I have gone on to the next point.  Talking to her after class has not helped, so thank you anyway for the suggestion.

Cycling.  One ride in two weeks.  Legs:  flat.  Lungs:  not interested.  Heart: not in it.  Bike: noisy.  Roads: squirrel-infested.  I nearly crashed twice because of suicidal rodents darting in front of my bike.

Reading.  BO-ring.  I can’t get into anything new, so I’m back to re-reading old King novels that I have already read ten or more times.  The thought of going to a bookstore makes me cringe.

What happened to me?  I don’t recognize this person writing right now, and I can’t find the real me anywhere.

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